Getting sick is no fun.
It can be especially difficult if you have a young baby to look after.
If you are breastfeeding, you might worry about how your illness could affect it.
You might worry whether you can keep breastfeeding while sick.
You might worry whether any medications you take will affect breastfeeding.
You might be worried about passing an infection to your baby.
Unfortunately, even well meaning healthcare professionals sometimes incorrectly advise a mother to stop breastfeeding, when she is sick.
Breastfeeding During Illness
Here are 6 things you should know about breastfeeding during illness.
#1: Very Few Illnesses Preclude Breastfeeding
There are very few illnesses that make it necessary for you to stop breastfeeding. For example, in developed countries, HIV is one disease that precludes breastfeeding.
However, for most common illnesses such as a cold, flu, gastroenteritis, mastitis etc, breastfeeding can continue.
#2: A Few Medications Preclude Breastfeeding
When seeing a doctor for illness, it is important to remind your doctor that you are breastfeeding. That way, you can be prescribed the medication that is most compatible with breastfeeding.
There are many medications breastfeeding mothers can take safely. For medications that are not recommended, there are usually safe alternatives.
The decision about whether you should stop breastfeeding, even for a short period of time, to take a medication, is more complex than simply considering whether the medication will be passed to your baby through your breastmilk. It is also important to take into account the risks of not breastfeeding, even for a short period of time, for both you and your baby.
A helpful resource for breastfeeding mothers and their doctors is the InfantRisk Center which provides up-to-date evidence-based information about the use of medications during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Check the free Apple LactMed App for iPhone/iPod Touch and Android devices. It will help you find information about maternal and infant drug levels, possible effects on breastfeeding and on breastfed infants, and alternative drugs to consider. You can find out more here.
#3: You Can Reduce The Chance Of Your Baby Getting Sick
Most illnesses (e.g. a cold, flu and most cases of gastroenteritis) are due to viruses. When you are sick with a virus, your baby would have been exposed to the virus even before you developed symptoms.
Breastfeeding will not give your baby the illness but rather will help to reduce the chances of your baby becoming sick.
When you are sick, your body makes antibodies to help you fight the specific virus. The antibodies are passed on to your baby through your breastmilk. This is how breastfeeding can help prevent your baby getting sick. But if she does, at least she will probably not be as sick as you are.
In fact, as infectious disease specialist, Dr Stephen Buescher, explains in his Anti-Inflammatory Characteristics of Human Milk podcast, breastfed babies might have asymptomatic infections (that don't show any signs of inflammation) because of the anti-inflammatory factors in breastmilk which can turn acute-inflammatory cells (eg neutrophils) off.
#4: Your Supply Might Be Affected
If you have a febrile illness (accompanied by fever) you might notice a temporary supply drop. Typically, the drop is not dramatic enough for you to need supplementation and will usually increase again quickly when you feel better.
These factors affect a breastfeeding mother’s supply when she is sick:
- She might not breastfeed as often as she usually would
- Some medications that she might take (perhaps inadvertently) can cause her supply to drop
So, to avoid a decreased milk supply, continue to breastfeed often and, if possible, avoid any medications that tend to decrease milk supply.
#5: Breastfeeding Can Give You A Chance To Rest
Breastfeeding gives you many opportunities to sit or even lie down. This means when you are sick you can rest whenever your little one shows cues she’s ready to feed.
#6: Drink Plenty Of Fluids To Help Prevent Dehydration
It is usually recommended that a breastfeeding mother drinks to satisfy her thirst.
Research has found that even during religious fasting, breastfeeding mothers maintain their supply.
However, when you’re sick, it is important to drink more fluids to prevent dehydration especially since severe dehydration may lower your supply.
If you become dehydrated and notice a supply drop, there are many ways to boost it again. Speak with an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor or La Leche League leader, or see a lactation consultant.
In most cases when you are sick you can keep breastfeeding. Drinking plenty of fluids will prevent dehydration. Continuing to breastfeed often will maintain your supply and help your baby to stay well.